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Thomas J. Allen, Beloved Sloanie Professor, Dies at 89


Thomas J. Allen, SM ’63, PhD ’66, a beloved member of the MIT Sloan community for more than half a century, died November 13 after a brief illness. He was 89.

“Professor Allen led an extraordinary career as a distinguished scholar and teacher,” said John C Head III Dean David Schmittlein. “His contributions to the study of technology management and communications remain just as important today as they were when he pioneered them. The MIT Sloan community will miss him dearly.”

Edward B. Roberts, SB ’57, SM ’58, SM ’60, PhD ’62, the David Sarnoff Professor of Management of Technology, remembered Allen as his “oldest and closest MIT friend.”

“He joined us at the very start of our continuing efforts pioneering leadership in managing all aspects of technological innovation, and contributed greatly throughout his career. But most of all Tom was open, sincere, concerned, and helpful to all whom he encountered.”

Widely known for his groundbreaking research on the eponymous “Allen curve,” which traces how communication among engineers drops as distance increases, and the role of “technological gatekeepers.” Professor Allen served in a number of significant academic and administrative roles at MIT and the MIT Sloan School of Management—including Gordon Y. Billard Professor of Management, Howard W. Johnson Professor of Management, and MacVicar Faculty Fellow.

Beyond these and the many other official titles Allen earned during his tenure at the Institute, Sloanies will always remember him for his dedication to his students. As longtime friend and MIT Sloan senior lecturer Ralph Katz explained on the occasion of Allen’s retirement in 2014, students adored him.

“He loves teaching the kids because he loves to share, and see the excitement in their eyes. He’s a kid at heart, and he’s got a very big heart.”

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Allen graduated from Upsala College with a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1954. He subsequently enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served overseas in Japan and Korea until 1960, at which time he moved to Seattle, Washington to work as an engineer for Boeing. When the company later transferred him to a site in Lincoln, Massachusetts—and since he had already begun working toward a master’s degree in electrical engineering—he enrolled at MIT.

There Allen befriended Donald G. Marquis, the inaugural David Sarnoff Professor of Management of Technology at MIT Sloan, and through their friendship, he became interested in the organizational management of engineers. After earning his master’s degree in 1963, Allen began pursuing a PhD in the subject with Marquis as his mentor and completed the program in 1966. That same year, he received his initial MIT Sloan faculty appointment.

Allen, who described himself as “an inner-city kid from Newark” in 2014, never imagined he would become a renowned management science researcher and college professor, but that is exactly what happened. Soon after joining the MIT Sloan faculty, he took over the “Managerial Psychology” course from Marquis and went on to teach it every year for 39 years. Allen also authored over 56 major research publications, including the classic books Managing the Flow of Technology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984) and Information Technology and the Corporation of the 1990s: Research Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Allen’s scholarship frequently took him across the globe. After serving as a distinguished visiting professor for several years at University College Dublin, he helped to found the National Institute of Technology Management at the Smurfit School of Business in 1997 and served as its director until 2004. In addition, Allen earned honorary degrees from universities in Belgium, Sweden, and Spain in recognition of his contributions to their educational programs.

MIT Sloan offers condolences to Professor Allen’s family, friends, and colleagues. He is survived by his wife, Joan M. Allen; children Thomas J. (Fleur) Allen Jr., Susan M. (Michael) Golden, and Máirín A. (Jason) Friday; grandchildren Éamonn, Declan, Niamh, Molly, Meg, and Aislinn; and brother, John M. Allen.

For more info Andrew Husband Senior Writer & Editor, OER (617) 715-5933